A Spineless Cur’s Approach to Climate Activism

I’ve been banging my head on walls to understand what would make for winning climate change activism. The actions I see in the news don’t do it for me, nor do my own ideas. I’m cool on civil disobedience because it’s not designed for the kind of problem climate change is, and I doubt the value of protests because they lack oomph and I worry that they come off as a sort of self-aggrandizing hobby. Plus we’re so used to them that they’ve become wallpaper. Every time I’m in DC there’s some throng or other chanting on the mall, and I don’t even bother to find out what they’re chanting about anymore. There’s altogether too much thronging.

What to do instead?

I think activism works best when the activist publicly shows a willingness to sacrifice/risk/suffer. Think Gandhi’s hunger strikes, or civil rights activists braving fire hoses. Or this guy:

Or this guy:

…who, armed with nothing but 10-pound cojones, burned himself quietly to death in the street to protest an unjust Vietnamese government. It worked – his sacrifice appears to have been a turning point in the conflict. On the other hand, among climate change activists, we’ve got this guy:

…who lives in this house:

…and whose cojones aren’t as impressive:

So I ponder: what kind of public sacrifice/risk could I make to demonstrate my commitment, in a way that might affect people on a gut/heart level?

My options are limited by the fact that I’m a coward. I won’t burn myself to death (not that it’s appropriate in this case), but I can do better than I’ve done so far. All I’ve done to date is quit my carbon-intensive job. Though unimpressive, it’s been valuable as a preparatory step. One can’t go straight from Professional Quiverer to Spartan Warrior. There are intermediate stages, like the Slightly-Less-Cowardly-Than-the-Gutless-Pleasure-Monkey-I’ve-Spent-My-Life-Being-Up-Until-Now stage.

Here’s an idea for my next step. I don’t know whether I’ll do it but it’s on my list of possibilities. Forrest Gump inspired it. Here it is in 4 easy steps:

  1. Walk out front door
  2. Get on bike
  3. Ride back from coast to coast, over and over again, giving talks on fossil fuel dependency along the way, until…
  4. All federal subsidies to big oil are rescinded

You’ll recall that Gump did something similar: he jogged between coasts for a few years.

If I’m lucky and charming (so if I’m lucky) others might ride with me, like they ran with Gump (I know, he’s fictional. These are my straws – I can grasp at them if I wish).

I’ve chosen oil subsidies because ending them is a simple, concrete, measurable, realistic short-term goal, plus GOP leaders have endorsed it, and Obama is targeting it:

So perhaps it needs only a nudge to happen. Also, ending these subsidies would not only be a bulwark against climate change, but also peak oil, which may be upon us. If all the subsidies now given to oil were given to solar, solar would be cheaper in 100% of the country, as this infographic attests

The key difficulty is that oil subsidies may not end in my lifetime, and I could spend the balance of my days as a hobo bicyclist. There might be a certain poetry to that, but it would also mean separation from my friends and loved ones for the rest of my life, save for the occasional pedal-by.

If it weren’t for that, I’d hop on my bike right now. On the other hand, isn’t that the risk which makes the idea interesting, which demonstrates commitment? If not for that it would just be a long bike ride. What do you think? If you like my idea, please egg me on. I want to be egged. Hard. Or maybe someone who reads this will do it so I can continue nursing my cowardice.

From the Sea

Posted May 03, 2011 in Smashing Ideas | 10 Comments on A Spineless Cur’s Approach to Climate Activism


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  1. Carll Goodpasture says:

    Splendid idea. Just go for it. So, why idi you stop running from coast to coast? Maybe take it easy on your self and e-bil. perhaps around the world. Stop by when you reach Norway.

    Congrats and keep up the good work,

    Best wishes from Carll

  2. Nick B. says:

    I’m not sure what e-bil means, but i will poke my head in if, somehow, I make it to Norway (chances for that are slim though because I don’t like swimming, and breaching the Atlantic would require quite a lot of it.)

  3. Llojy Egorr says:

    Maybe speed it up a bit, so your ladylove won’t have to wait so long. Strap a Saturn V rocket to your bicycle. Power the rocket with hydrogen-oxygen mix, so it is ecofriendly.

  4. anna says:

    travelling by bike is great! just did a short bike camping trip w/ my husband and baby, it was soooo fun! i think it’s a great idea and you will encounter so many more people this way. maybe your ladylove should come along too.

  5. Nick B. says:

    I would *love* for my ladylove to come along, but she just got a new job and it would be hard to pry her away from it.

    Also, a short trip by bike is great – a long trip with no endpoint, sometimes across a forbidding landscape, would be more difficult. But among the ideas I’ve had it’s one of my favorites. It certainly seems like, however hard it would end up being, there would be a lot of good stuff about it.

  6. Nick B. says:

    I’ll just do the trip, build a time machine, go back in time to the start of the trip, and hang out with ladylove while the other me finishes the trip, builds a time machine, goes back in time to the….


  7. Regor says:

    Here’s another idea, perhaps more easy to undertake:

    1. Go out the front door.

    2. Get yourself and a friend into two cars, maybe with signs.*

    3. Drive cross-country on the interstate at a cool 50-55 mph.

    * Signs might read, “Honk if you believe in climate change.”

    You have to admit, it’s different, and hard to totally ignore!


  8. Nick B. says:


    I couldn’t do that, unless I could somehow fuel the cars without giving a dime to fossil fuel producers.

    I’d feel ridiculous calling attention to fossil fuel subsidies while simultaneously forking money over to fossil fuel producers.

    I think it’s important to remember: every time we drive unnecessarily, we’re giving the fossil fuel industry more strength to obstruct our path away from fossil fuels. When we get in our cars, we should feel it in our guts, and it should not feel good.

    I see that you’re very involved in this issue. Power to you.

  9. Ian W. says:

    Hey Nick,

    I like what you have done with the site. I know this post is a few weeks old but I’ll reply anyway:

    I think you are right about our current wave of climate related civil disobedience. It would be improved by genuine sacrifice on the part of the disobeyers.

    I’m sure you’re aware of this, but past civil disobedience movements had some amount of effectiveness not because the participants willingly sacrificed, but because they were forced to sacrifice. They were civilly disobeying because there was no other choice. That’s also how you get lots of people to join a movement. When there is no other alternative. Right now people have lots of alternatives–care about some other issue, go to work, go to school, watch TV, etc.

    Also, great acts of civil disobedience in the past have worked (Gandhi’s hunger strikes) because people were ready to listen. I think you would agree people today are not ready to listen to anything climate change activists have to say.

    So, I don’t think you’re being a coward at all. I think you are being smart. Hopefully this makes sense.

    Keep up the good work.


    PS – My suggestion for site improvement is to get rid of the inset reply chains or whatever you call them. Stuff just looks squished.

  10. Nick Bentley says:

    Thanks Ian. I’m trying to figure out how to kill the indents but no luck yet. There’s a glitch that I haven’t located yet.

    I disagree with your notion that in the past, disobeyers were forced into it. In fact, even in cases of “mass disobedience” only a tiny proportion of the aggrieved actually disobey. It takes courage that most people don’t have. Everybody always feels like they have a choice.

    But I agree that most people aren’t ready to listen. So I’ll keep looking for different ways to communicate.

This site is about one total amateur’s half-cocked attempts to do something about Climate Change.
Why is it here?

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